Up and at ‘em
Despite offseason’s frustrations, Wildcats ready to kick off new season
It's a look back that encourages the De Soto football team.
That, to say the least, comes as a bit of a surprise.
Last season's record wasn't the record the Wildcats had hoped for. The ending wasn't the ending they had hoped for, and the offseason -- marked by the transfer of senior quarterback Jake Morse -- wasn't the offseason the team had hoped for.
Still, in all of that is optimism for the new season, Cat coach Brad Scott said.
"I've been really happy with the way they kids have approached this season," he said. "We have the potential to be a pretty good football team, but potential doesn't matter if you don't go out and play hard.
"That's the thing we're really preaching now."
De Soto's finished 2006 a disappointing 4-5 -- disappointing not because the team was that bad, but because it wasn't. The Cats won their first three games of the season, then dropped three in a row, plus their final two.
Beneath a 34-15 shellacking at Louisburg, a fist-clenching 14-13 loss to eventual Class 4A runner-up Paola and a emotion-draining, playoff-denying 18-7 defeat to Spring Hill there is hope, Scott said.
De Soto held the lead into the second half in four of its five losses. For nearly three quarters -- sometimes more -- the Cats played rough with some of the state's elite Class 4A programs. In the end of each of those close games a worn out and exhausted De Soto team crumpled.
The bright spot, Scott said, was running everywhere early Monday morning when the team first started its fall practices. It was lapping up the water to fight off an already steamy morning. It was pulling on new helmets and going through old drills.
The bright spot was the program's largest team since the split with Mill Valley, seven years ago. Numbers mean depth, and depth could mean a better end to the grueling games the Cats just couldn't keep up in a year ago.
"We had 68 kids there, which at our school is unheard of," Scott said. "My first year we had 25 in four grades. The last three years have been pretty steady near 50, been down as low a 41 or 42 or up to 52, then all the sudden this year we jump up to almost 70 kids. We're thrilled with how many kids we have."
If it's the depth that pops to Scott's mind first, it's certainly not for lack of quality returning players. De Soto enters the new season with plenty of questions, but it returns a few answers, too, especially when it comes to scoring points.
De Soto lost two of its top three receivers from a year ago and the third, Erik Hill, is set to replace Morse at quarterback. Hill will still be on the field, however, and he led the team in touchdowns last year, scoring eight from his tight end position.
Shane Miller also returns after having finished second on the team in scoring with six touchdowns as a receiver, a running back and a kick returner.
The duo together scored as many touchdowns as the rest of the team combined.
In Hill, Scott said he has a playmaker. He's big and strong, qualities that made him a dazzling tight end and a vicious defensive end last season.
This year his success will be less about flexing the muscle and more about managing a stable of speedy and talented running backs and receivers.
"For us to be successful, we need to have the ball in his hand. We have a lot of kids like that, and that's different for us," Scott said. "Usually we only have a few kids like that, but now we have seven or eight kids who any time they touch it, they can take it to the house.
"Erik's going to be the catalyst. You could call him the point guard of our offense."
Miller is the lead horse in that stable. He's a senior now, but he's been employing his blazing speed to good effect for two seasons.
He won't be able to do it alone, however. Miller was second on the team with 222 yards rushing a year ago, and is the only one returning with any significant stats in that department. De Soto, saddled with a small and inexperienced offensive line in 2006, often struggled to run the ball, finishing with more than 400 fewer yards on the ground than it had through the air.
Miller and the rest of the backs struggled, and any breakaway potential was often lost to a swarm of tacklers.
"We want to get it to him in space, and the nice thing is we've got some young kids that are ready to step up, like Mark England and Dylan Burford," Scott said. "He doesn't need to be the focal point he was at the end of the season last year. When people were able to gang up on him, he didn't have as much success.
"Now with these weapons we feel we'll be able to get him out in space again."
Defensively the De Soto lost nine of its top 11 tacklers and all but one of the players who registered a sack. New starters and new stars will need to rise up from across the defense, just as they will across the offense at receiver and on the line.
Scott and the Cats are optimistic, though. They have 68 reasons to be.
"We graduated 8 kids, but we have a freshman class of 28 or 29. We bring in another class we're to 80 or 90 kids out for football," he said. "We're just unbelievably excited about the number of kids we have wanting to play in our program.
"We're going to rotate a lot more. We've got the depth to throw some fresh bodies out there."